Willie Jeffries and Melissa Hudson had just pointed their van north on Michigan Avenue when Jeffries spotted a panhandler sitting on the sidewalk across the street.

Jeffries made a U-turn and Hudson jumped out of the van to approach a woman seated on her backpack and holding a cardboard sign. The smiles on their faces indicated they recognized each other.

“Do you want to work today?” asked Melissa Hudson, a case manager for A Safe Haven, a social service agency that works with the homeless.

The woman quickly nodded in the affirmative, folded her sign and stowed it in her backpack.

There would be one less person panhandling downtown on this sunny, windswept Wednesday morning.

OPINION

For the past three months, the city of Chicago has contracted with A Safe Haven to identify homeless panhandlers in the central business district and to offer them an alternative.

Instead of panhandling that day, they can earn $55 by joining a work crew of 14 to 16 individuals assigned a manual labor project such as picking up trash along roadways or clearing vacant lots.

Those who choose to work also are offered breakfast and lunch. At the conclusion of the five-hour workday, they are paid in cash.

The city calls the project a Day for Change, the underlying goal being to use the pay incentive to engage homeless individuals in other services that could change their lives, by moving them off the streets into housing and on track for employment.

When the city launched the pilot effort in October, modeling it after a similar program in Albuquerque, New Mexico, officials here weren’t sure whether panhandlers would even want to work.

“We just didn’t know how this would go,” said Lisa Morrison Butler, commissioner of the Department of Family and Support Services.

Indeed, some panhandlers scoffed at the prospect of day labor, a choice location for begging being potentially much more lucrative.

As word of a $55 payday circulated among the homeless networks, however, the problem proved to be quite the opposite. More homeless people showed up to demand a chance to work than the slots available.

By now, the distinctive Safe Haven vans are often swarmed as soon as they show up downtown. The interest has exceeded the city’s expectations.

Participants can work only 11 times in a year to avoid triggering IRS reporting requirements, but the hope is that those who are serious about making a change will have sought help by then.

On Wednesday, the two vans assigned to Day for Change were full by their third stop outside Harold Washington Library, never making it north of the river.

A young woman named Crystal, in pink pants and carrying a skateboard, was among those disappointed at being left behind. She was told to come back Thursday, and glumly said she would.

“It’s unfortunate, but we can’t get everybody,” Jeffries explained.

To reach more people, the city has decided to operate the program year-round with a budget of $540,000 and to send the vans into additional locations frequented by the homeless. Mayor Rahm Emanuel is pressing for further expansion.

“We believe it works,” Butler said.

The evidence of success is mostly anecdotal: 25 Day for Change participants followed up for workforce development; two found permanent employment; and three are in a job training program.

But Hudson and Jeffries say they also see success in the way participants carry themselves with renewed purpose after just one day of work.

On Wednesday, crew members cleaned the west embankment along the Kennedy Expressway just south of Hubbard’s Cave.

Among them was Brenda Taylor, 55, the woman we picked up earlier on Michigan Avenue. Homeless for “12 or 13 years,” Taylor spends most days panhandling at “my spot” at Madison and Michigan and most nights sleeping on the Blue Line.

Taylor told me she is homeless because the gangbanging and drug-selling of her youth led to four trips to the penitentiary, criminal records posing a major obstacle to housing and employment.

“God gave me a second chance . . . God sent her to me,” Taylor said, referring to Hudson, the case manager.

Hudson, once homeless herself, said Taylor has told her she is ready to get off the streets and has shown her commitment to the program.

But this was Taylor’s 11th work day, meaning it’s up or out.

“We’re going to stay committed with her,” Hudson promised.

Taylor promised to be patient.